Samuel J. Tanner 5 minute read

Watching TV

Katie and I watch lots of Netflix. Too much Netflix? Who's to say?

We toil in the toddler fields all day. We're exhausted after the boys go to sleep. So we collapse on the couch, phones in hand, and zone out in front of the television. Is this a healthy practice? Again, who's to say? I know I'm too tired to be productive after the boys finally go to bed. They have so much energy. My boys wear me out. Maybe some parents do Yoga, exercise, or learn to play the violin at the end of the day. Not me. I watch basketball on my phone, and empty my mind by basking in the calming glow of screens. 2018, I guess.

Lately, Katie and I have been watching Friends. I haven't seen the show in years. The sitcom is familiar in a comforting way. The actors wear trendy clothes from the 90's. What's the Frequency Kenneth by REM plays in the background during a party. Chandler makes a reference to Bill Clinton. The show reminds me of being a teenager. I remember watching the show on an old, boxy television in Dad's basement. My flannels hung on a clothing rack in the corner. My CD's were lined up in alphabetical order on a shelf, near my Nintendo 64 games. My stereo was connected to oversized speakers I inherited from my father. This was before the pervasive onset of internet, before my phone was a constant presence in my life. The good old days.

I imagine this is how my parents felt about shows such as Leave it To Beaver, Mary Tyler Moore, or I love Lucy. Nostalgic. In this age of disconnected media, the fictional characters in an old sitcom are as familiar to me as my actual family members, many of whom are since departed. I'll never talk to my grandmother or my mother again, but I can watch Chandler Bing make self-deprecating comments about his sex life. I guess it's not exactly the same thing. Still, watching old television is something of a reassuring return to the past.

So much of the humor in Friends wouldn't fly today. Chandler Bing's homophobia or Rachel's obsession with shopping would lead to all sorts of dramatic reactions on Facebook. People would post a critique of one of Chandler's jokes, and then write "this." (or "so. much. this.") beneath the post. I think I've actually read some of these in light of the show being released on Netflix. I can't pretend I remember what I read on Facebook. Do I believe that the United States is a more socially just place in 2018 than in 1995? Not for a second. But posts on social media are quick to admonish or point out what is and what isn't okay to say, laugh at, or consider. This has a policing effect, I think. Affect too.

I have a friend who is a stand-up comedian. He's liberal or even progressive in his politics. I shudder to use those terms, wondering what they even mean these days. The terms liberal and conservative are more essentializing insults now than anything else. Still, my friend would probably align with the snowflakes. He bemoans doing stand-up in front of liberals, because they're so worried about what it is and isn't okay to laugh at. Conservative audiences are easier to get a laugh from, he's told me. My friend's comments remind me of an episode of Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians Getting Coffee in Cars. This is another show on Netflix. I binge watched these short episodes on Wednesday night, when Katie was serving in the youth program at church. Katie's not a fan of stand-up comedy. Anyway, Jerry and one of his guests have a long conversation about why doing stand-up is more tense these days, in light of audiences heightened sensibilities around social issues. Jerry concludes that people are less willing to laugh at things. Does Seinfeld stand up these days? I think so. For my money, it's the best television show there is.

I don't want to go too far down this road I'm on here. I do think that comedy has the power to normalize oppresive ideologies and beliefs. And the United States is rife with inequity that gets perpetuated through our only shared discursive spaces: Television in the 90's, and the internet in 2018. Still, it is good to laugh at things. All things. Laughter requires you to critically consider what you are being presented with. And it's also okay to engage things that you disagree with. Posting a totalizing post on social media, and refusing to dialogue with difference isn't social justice. It's an imposition of your belief system, at the expense of a careful consideration (with others) of the forces that shape who we are and what we are becoming. Understanding the ways we think, especially if we care about democracy (or each other), is complex, tricky work. I'm not convinced that the internet helps us better figure out what we are. I am convinced that it hypnotizes us with words and images, ads and television shows, the comforting glow of the screen, an artificial family. Beware.

I'm a hypocrite, of course. I'm transfixed by Netflix, by the screen. I'm aware of it's hold on me. Mostly, I'm talking to myself in this blog. What does it mean to encounter a show from my childhood in 2018, on Netflix? Probably nothing important. But I'm one to ruminate on things. It's how my mind works. I can't help it.

So Katie and I will probably make it through Friends. Ross and Rachel? They suck. They shouldn't be together. Mostly, I'm rooting for Chandler to gain weight. I know it's coming. Season 4? Season 5? I can't remember when he kicked his Vicodin habit. Watching Chandler puff up like a whale is something to look forward to, I guess.